I am toxically addicted to productivity.
That may sound a bit dramatic, but it’s the truth. I’m sure we all enjoy the feeling of being productive—ticking off that thing on our to-do list, the sigh of reprieve after a good day of work, looking forward to the weekend and vacation time as a reward, but that’s not quite what I mean.
I love having things to do in the worst way possible. I pile up my responsibilities so high that I’m left stretched thin, self-care is a totally foreign concept, my idea of productivity is only assigned to items relating to work and school, and I never quite feel like I’m doing enough.
This is what I mean by “toxic productivity.”
Toxic productivity is not a new concept by any means. We’ve all heard the calls of “rise and grind,” hustle culture, and workaholism—but toxic productivity is more of an umbrella term addressing the “inability to not be productive, [where] everything is looked at in terms of goal attainment or achievement.”
This is the idea that even when you are hustling and grinding, you’re never quite satisfied. You always feel like you could have done more.
The phenomenon was reinforced during the pandemic in particular where most of us had a lot more free time on our hands, coupled with a lot of uncertainty regarding the future.
Psychologist, Kathryn Esquer remarks, “we could have used our free time to rest, recharge and restore ourselves, but many of us filled those hours with more work as a way to feel worthy, fulfilled, and in control.”
Productivity for some can be a sort of coping mechanism to deal with the ebb and flow of life, like the uncertainty of the pandemic. For others, it can become a sort of compulsion or addiction based on the idea that the more productive they can be, the more likely they are to be loved by others and feel safe.
Overall, our culture has been obsessed with productivity even prior to the pandemic—you see it in self-help books, touted by social media influencers, and even as a formula of sorts in various “10 Steps to be More Productive” articles. We’ve been ingrained with this idea that the more productive we are, the better our lives will become.
We see this in academia, where more hours equate to a perception of greater commitment to your discipline and a fast track to tenureship. We’ve seen it in those articles about Amazon warehouse workers for whom quota fulfillment only led to greater expectations with no compensation. We see it everywhere really—the more hours/energy you put into work/school/whatever—the more likely it is that you’ll get that promotion or that pay increase.
But who’s to say what’s productive? How is this even measured?
I believe that productivity, objectively, is a positive phenomenon, encouraging us to fill our lives with activities in the service of ourselves, the people most nearest and dearest to us, or the companies we work for.
I also believe that it has reached a point where sacrificing your health and ultimately your life in the name of work and attaching this to your self worth, while never quite feeling enough—has become the norm.
I’ve always chalked up my ambition and overachieving tendencies to being a type A person.
But there was definitely a point, specifically when I started grad school in the pandemic, that my relationship with achievement and productivity reached an unhealthy obsession.
It started with to-do list(s), Kanban boards (a project management tool used to visualize different stages of work), and time management apps. It then evolved to working two jobs while taking six courses, managing multiple projects, sitting on a committee, working on grant applications, job applications, volunteer work, as well as focusing on my health, sleep, and social life.
I became aware of these toxic patterns in the pandemic—but I wasn’t fazed. If anything, the pandemic, while a reminder for many to slow down, only fueled me more—allowing me to take on more from the confines of my own home and not having to waste hours commuting.
As I reflect on the close of my master’s degree in these past few weeks, I recall initially lamenting not learning a new skill in the pandemic and seeking out opportunities in grad school only to pile them on. This was exacerbated as I made myself overly available and accessible both for work and for school and never said no to any opportunity or project.
I also recall those many points of achievement being followed by a brief high and then a period of lows—considering a PhD solely for the productivity bragging rights, ultimately using LinkedIn as a marker to see how I compare to my peers on the productivity scale, feeling guilty about having a social life/engaging in self-care—because it wasn’t “productive.”
Being a rare brown person in my field brings an added layer of complexity, making me feel the need to work harder to prove myself.
It’s no wonder that I’ve felt so incredibly burnt out these past two years.
What’s interesting is that while everyone is aware of toxic productivity, I’ve only ever been praised and rewarded for my toxic productivity behaviours.
I’ve been complimented for being overly responsive (i.e., at every waking hour) at work and school via Slack, Teams and/or email because of how it allowed me to get more work done.
Never saying no to projects has made me seem like an ambitious go-getter and allowed me more responsibilities, and therefore, more compensation at work. Not only that, but me doing all these different things has ultimately helped my hireability—employers see this as me being well-rounded and having more experience.
Discussion of me doing all these various activities simultaneously, has always had a positive tone—filling me with validation that I so deeply crave, where these behaviours stem from.
As I mentioned before, productivity for some, like me, can be rooted in a compulsion. The more money I make, the more hours I put in at work/school, the more I will be liked by others, and in turn, the safer I feel. The dopamine wears off after the momentary gratification, throwing me back into a cycle of doing more work and not feeling like I’m doing enough.
Having now finished grad school and immediately starting a new job (with no real break might I add, I recognize that I am a hypocrite), I don’t really know where I stand on toxic productivity. While I’m aware of my tendencies, I’m not “cured” per say—but I do have some lessons or food for thought both for myself and for others who might be on a similar journey:
- We need to rethink what it means to be productive. I’ve always associated work and school with productivity, but I think this is inherently incorrect. I think that we need to start thinking about productivity to include ourselves and our physical and mental health. For me, this has meant putting and prioritizing self-care on my to-do list.
- Someone recently gave me advice about starting my new job. Specifically they implored: “Don’t feel the need to do everything, especially when you start out. Just take it easy. You were hired for a reason.” This couldn’t have been more timely, as I’ve been thinking about all the ways I could go “above and beyond” to impress my supervisors and colleagues. What I’m recognizing is that going above and beyond isn’t necessary and that boundaries are important for a healthy work-life balance.
- Think about what you have already. In my never-ending cycle of always wanting to do more, I often forget how far I’ve come and how much I’ve achieved. Therefore, I think it’s important to step back sometimes and recognize this, especially when a new opportunity comes knocking. Think to yourself—is this worth it? Is this reinforcing my toxic productivity tendencies? Do I even have time for this? What about all that I’ve done already?
- Think about what really matters to you in life. This is also something I tend to forget. While work and school and my career ambitions are an important aspect of my life—they are not everything. I have incredible people in my life, various hobbies, and passions, that are also equally if not more important. Life, to me, is a long endeavour. I realize that there is no point dwelling too much on the constant cycle of work. There are other things to enjoy.
Subscribe to 5X Press
Join our email list to be the first to receive updates on the latest from 5X Press.